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ADSS CONFERENCE: SOCIAL SERVICES TAKES CENTRE STAGE

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There was a 'big buzz' around this year's Association of Directors of Social Services conference, according to pres...
There was a 'big buzz' around this year's Association of Directors of Social Services conference, according to president Roy Taylor. And as members gathered in Brighton last week there was certainly no shortage of issues to talk about.

The past month or so has seen social services deluged with government initiatives affecting how it is structured and delivers services. This will culminate in the much-heralded white paper expected shortly after the conference ends. But how are the managers on the ground reacting to an atmosphere which seems to mix new hope and hostile criticism in equal measure?

One of the major initiatives launched last month by health minister Paul Boateng was Quality Protects, which sets national targets for children's services. Extra funding is dependent on these targets being achieved, with the threat of hit squads if they are not. The programme comes in the wake of the damning Social Services Inspectorate and Utting reports, findings health secretary Frank Dobson described as a 'national disgrace'.

Children's services has been the target for what Mr Taylor, director of community services at Kingston upon Thames LBC, believes is an increasingly damaging culture of blame. 'There is a balance between escaping blame and having the situation we have, where in the past 18 months when things have gone wrong staff have been criticised publicly, loudly and heavily. Departments' reputations have been dragged down, which is very destructive and hard to recover from. I fundamentally disagree with a policy of naming and shaming - government has a responsibility to help these departments get back on their feet.'

Moira Gibb, chair of the ADSS children and families committee, says the barrage of criticism affects not just staff morale but the way they deliver services, for example in recruiting foster parents.

Reactions to the approaching white paper are more complex. Although the basic shape of central prescription and national standards is fairly clear, there is uncertainty about its effects in practice.

'There have been months of waiting when we have not known whether it means the demise of social services or its total transformation,' says Mr Taylor. 'I believe it is the rebirth of social services - as a function, though not necessarily in terms of departments.

'With the outgoing Conservative government it looked like social services might be privatised. Now it seems it will be central to the government agenda. It will be exceedingly popular with managers - or it will be when the truth of it dawns.'

However, many key issues remain unresolved. 'For Tony Blair and his colleagues the contract is almost directly with individual citizens, with local government as a vehicle. It is similar to the situation with the NHS, except councils have local democracy and that particular circle needs to be squared.'

The contrast with the NHS also applies to the imposition of national standards. Mr Taylor believes the difference in funding bases aroundthe UK, as well as issues such as training and IT investment, make consistency difficult without an injection of cash.

David Parkin, divisional director of community care at Northumberland CC, says the atmosphere is one of uncertainty more than low morale. 'People are either looking to create some sense of stability with what they have or are seeing that change is inevitable and being impatient about getting on with the job.

'There is a sense that if social services is becoming seen increasingly as an adjunct of health authorities then they want to get on and make it work. The problem is the government does not seem to be considering structural change. That makes coping with these changes that much more difficult.'

This introduces the other strand of the new regime: the Modernising health and social services document, introducing partnerships between social services and health authorities on commissioning and providing services. It also means centrally imposed targets for the first time.

Breaking down the Berlin Wall between the two agencies, as the Department of Health has called it, will not be simple. However, Mr Taylor says there should be enthusiasm for creating a new corporate manager role.

'There still needs to be a lot of work done on 'corporate management'. But this is somewhere social services skills should score. We are talking about people who don't just set out to achieve targets in a macho way but who consult with the public and sustain relationships over long periods to hit targets.'

But enthusiasm is being tempered by the reality of workload and under-resourcing, he says. The same group of managers who are trying to maintain the core business are also likely to be shaping future roles and structures.

'People are going to be run ragged in some places unless there is the cash to recruit a new cadre of people.'

There may also be territorial tensions, he says, where the budgets of other departments have been protected. This year has seen an average cut of£750,000 in social services budgets. 'I am sure it seems easy from the centre to get directors to work together but governments have been trying this for years.'

However, joint targets are now a requirement, not an option. This will not make it easy to achieve, says Mr Taylor, but at least everyone will know it is not just a matter of encouragement.

Mr Parkin says the other difficulty is the question of accountability. 'It may seem easy for a social services office to sit down with other agencies,' he says. 'But how do you work out who decisions belong to with different accountability structures?'

The hope is that the local government white paper will resolve some of this confusion, with many councils already experimenting with new types of committees.

This still leaves the question of whether standards can be viewed on a national basis. Ms Gibb says: 'Social services is not a national organisation - we sit within local government. We are all doing something slightly different.

'The government is calling for more coherence and consistency but we need to have a framework within which that can be developed.'

The national guidance on charging, revealed in a recent leak of the social services white paper, covered a relatively straightforward aspect, she says. But national standards on the quality of service provided to children, for example, would be more difficult.

And how can managers shore up staff morale in the meantime? Ms Gibb believes the key is combating a media agenda which is a one-sided critique of management competence. 'The various reviews of children's services are painted as a set of bad news - in fact they are remarkably positive. On average 70% of people are pleased with their social services. If you had asked the government beforehand they wouldn't have predicted anything like that figure.

'Everyone knows good news isn't news to the media so we have to think of other ways of doing it. That particularly applies to the ways we address our own staff and help communication between different parts of a department about its successes.

'That is something we do much better now. But we need to think internally as well as externally. There are a number of authorities which are beginning to think quite radically in these terms.'

An example is the extensive complaints procedures many departments have introduced, she says. 'We are gathering so much information on complaints but perhaps missing the other side. A lot of departments have collected all the thanks-yous which normally get put away in people's drawers and circulated them so staff can see we get an enormous amount of positive feedback.'

She also points to the value of employee awards for good work, internally and through bodies such as the National Institute of Social Work.

Jo Williams, director of social services at Cheshire CC, agrees with the importance of internal communication. During extensive periods of change, the department has used 'anxiety boxes' where staff could post anonymous queries. These were then answered in regular bulletins. 'It's easy to forget that communication is founded on listening - staff need to feel they have a voice.'

How much that voice will be heard in central government remains to be seen. Mr Taylor believes the future will come into focus in the next few months. 'There is much more coherence with this government about the tasks ahead, and they now need to be quantified and resourced. If all this comes to pass, in five years the public will see a demonstrable difference in the quality of service.'

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